It is, in many respects, a curious kind of offer. IWC has kindly provided its fans with the opportunity to spend some of their money, not on watches, but on flora and fauna several thousand miles away. A new deal between the German watch company and the Charles Darwin Foundation invites the donation of anywhere between $20 and $1000, for which the donors receive, well, not a lot really: the symbolic adoption of an endangered species or, at best, invitations to IWC boutique events and preferential treatment – should one ever choose to travel to meet with said flora and fauna several thousand miles away.
It is, clearly, hardly the high glamour sales pitch typical of the watch industry, which for decades has strived to associate itself with classic yacht racing and Formula One, aerobatic teams, Grand Slam tennis players and Hollywood superstars. IWC has many ‘Friends of the brand’, comprising movie stars, musicians and sports celebrities… so this initiative is something of a contrast.
“We’ve never been a company to use personalities to push products, and we’re not a brand that’s ever been about glitz and flashiness, but understatement and substance over style, so to speak,” counters Simon Chambers, IWC’s brand director. “But what’s more is the fact that deals like the one for the Charles Darwin Foundation are good things to do, and the right things to do. Yes, it gives a form of credibility to IWC that you can’t get by association with a Hollywood celebrity. But, more than that, there’s a new consumer than expects more from the brands they buy into than product alone. They want to see a demonstration of a commitment to society.”
Even if that society comprises the likes of fish-eating snakes, mangrove finches, whale sharks, marine iguanas and giant tortoises – these and the many other strange and fascinating inhabitants of the Galapagos archipelago that the Charles Darwin Foundation, the only charity to focus exclusively on the conservation and sustainability of the archipelago, is doing much to protect. Indeed, the commitment is important precisely because that society does comprise such rare species – 40 per cent of the islands’ species are indigenous, 95 per cent of their original bio-diversity still intact; it has yet to lose an endemic bird species while, in comparison, a third of Hawaii’s are already extinct and many of the rest endangered.
Of course, IWC makes capital out of its relationship with the Foundation – association with the emphatically wild nature of the island chain gives authority to the outward-bound image of its diving watches, for example, most typically its Aquatimer range, special editions of which were launched this year to underline this association. But then a closer look at the Galapagos – like ‘Serengeti’, a byword for the grandiosity of nature to most – and it reveals the importance of just such a relationship.
Let the man whose ancestor first identified the islands’ global importance – Randall Keynes, great, great grandson to Charles Darwin, author and now campaigner for the Foundation – explain why IWC’s philosophy is, and here the pun is entirely deliberate, a suitably evolved one. “When I first went to the Galapagos they had already been so much part of my life I was terrified I’d be disappointed,” says the man who spent his school-days blithely ignorant of quite why so many of his school chums kept cracking jokes about his being descended from a monkey.
“But I was simply blown away – it was a spiritual experience,” Keynes adds. “The wonder of the place is that, because it has been cut off from human contact, one can get extraordinarily close to the wildlife, but also that life there is still getting established, these are still islands newly-emerging from the ocean. Its global peculiarity is its ability to show the process of evolution. It’s a one-off living experiment. And it was for this reason that, during one five-week visit in 1835, a young naturalist [Darwin] came to spot the mechanism of that process. But it’s also a unique test-bed in the human impact on highly fragile natural life, a problem we’re seeing again and again across the planet.”
Certainly, as Chambers stresses, that is why the Foundation needs all the help it can get, be it money, plain and simple, the helping hand of a global brand the likes of IWC, or even just its PR office, of a scale and reach that the Foundation might only dream of. Ocean acidification – one of the least well-known environmental problems of global import – has, for example, already killed off much of the coral around this UNESCO World Heritage site. Meanwhile, tourism is central to the archipelago’s economy – and the income of many local Ecuadorians – and yet its growth also threatens to cross a tipping point when it will start to destroy its very raison d’etre. “The future of the Galapagos is uncertain – it could easily be conserved so that we could appreciate it for ever more, but to do that the number of humans visiting has to be controlled,” as Keynes says, sounding not too positive.
The decision to implement that control, however, may well be not too far off, perhaps in no small part down to the fact that Galapagos itself is, as Ian Dunn puts it, “… a powerful brand that people want to listen to, certainly far above what the size of the islands or the charity would warrant, and while it’s a small part of the entire conservation world – it’s just an ocean archipelago – its place in the theory of evolution and its social impact means that it punches above its weight.” Dunn is an environmental scientist and the chief executive of the Galapagos Conservation Trust and, perhaps unexpectedly given its remit, spent much of his career in the petro-chemical industry – giving him, he argues, the kind of business nous many NGOs lack.
He argues that, while the Galapagos brand can be pushed further to beneficial effect – September, for example, sees the launch in Ecuadorian schools of an educational programme on the importance of the archipelago, one which is set to be rolled out to schools in the UK too – getting in more money will also be crucial. “Just relatively small amounts of money can make a huge difference. We’re working on a shoestring budget here compared with what’s spent in the corporate world. And I speak as someone from the corporate world. A simple commercial arrangement with a company, the likes of IWC giving us $250,000, allows us to run a protection programme for an entire species for a year.”
Perhaps a small example will illustrate just what challenges lie ahead for the Galapagos, how one might be hopeful for its conservation, but also rather cautious in one’s hope. One of the biggest challenges the islands face comes from an invasive species that might, in time, prove a serious threat to the native birds. That species is a tiny fly. And how does one even begin to eradicate a fly that has spread to all corners of an archipelago covering 45,000 square kilometres?
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